The problem with being a fan of Yoshitaka Amano's art in the West is not that there's too few ways to appreciate his work. It's the opposite: there's so many artbooks bearing his name, and such a plethora of projects he's been involved in to sample, that it's hard to give good advice on where to start. Harder still to avoid going broke. Fans of a specific franchise of his, like Vampire Hunter D or Final Fantasy, could be directed towards one of the books designed to anthologize his work for those projects, but it was hard to single out a first door to open that provided access to a little of everything. That has all changed with VIZ Media's English-language publication of Yoshitaka Amano Illustrations, a relatively brief but surprisingly comprehensive — and, more importantly, affordable — overview of the career and work of one of Japanese popular culture's most crucial figures.
Looking without prejudice
If someone is to start anywhere with Amano, they might as well start with the most famous franchise he's worked on, Final Fantasy. To that end, the editors of this book have elected to open up with several pages of Amano's work from the various Final Fantasy installments across the decades. It is hard to do justice to the sheer scope of his work in even that one franchise alone; the other Amano-themed Final Fantasy art anthologies out there, The Sky and Dawn, run to several hundred pages in an attempt to do just that. But the flavor of it, the freedom of imagination and the riot of color Amano is so fond of, all come through.
What's always struck me most about the early Final Fantasy work is something that I've long thought about, vis-a-vis the way the early 8- and 16-bit video games partly made up for their primitive graphics by supplying box art more suited to a best-selling music album. (Check out the anthology The Art of Atari for some fine examples of how Western video games accomplished this as well.) Amano makes note of this very fact in this section — that his work was meant not just to package or complement the experience of the game, but to augment it, to provide a way for the players to project into the game their own suspension of disbelief and sense of fantasy. I think this holds true even today, with graphics as forensically realistic as they have become, if only because the finished products of the games he's worked on tend to be heavily divergent from his original concepts.
Amano's other major franchises, Vampire Hunter D and Guin Saga, aren't broken out into their own sections in the rest of the book. Instead, most of the work he's done for those two titles are featured in a section devoted to cover illustrations. A wise plan, since it provides a chance to show off some other franchises he's contributed to. The best example of that is work Amano did for a series of reissues of Edogawa Rampo's mystery/thriller/horror fiction; it's hard to imagine a name artist whose approach would be a better match for the decadent subject matter.
We also are treated to glimpses (although no more than that, sadly) of the work Amano did for Yoshiki (Legend of the Galactic Heroes) Tanaka's fantasy novels Heroic Legend of Arslan, now back in the public eye thanks to a new manga adaptation by Hiromu (Fullmetal Alchemist) Arakawa, and a TV series adapted from same. I would have liked to see slightly more proportionate treatment given to all the projects — it's not like we don't have two entire books in English devoted to Vampire Hunter D artwork, anyway — but given that there is almost nothing covering Guin's art in English, for instance, any coverage of such things is welcome.
My original thesis about the real value of his book was in how it provided Western audiences a good starting point to experience Amano's work. Two other aspects come to mind, though: it provides glimpses at less widely known but still immensely important aspects of his career, and it allows Amano to speak about himself and his work in his own words.
The first of these involves a slew of his projects that aren't widely publicized outside of Japan — for instance, his Hero series of still by-and-large unpublished artworks, or the fine-art pieces Amano did that were intended for gallery display. What little we can see of Hero is intriguing and fascinating; even if it's never released in its entirety, it's already possible to see how it might have serves as the basis for or an influence on completed projects like his heroic fantasy Deva Zan. (An animated version of that project would be a real treat.)
Something else few people know about Amano, his early work with animation studio Tatsunoko as a designer, s also put on display here. Gatchman and Yatterman fans might know this, but I suspect many people coming in from the Final Fantasy side of things don't. The contrast between these splashier, more playful works and his more otherworldly, fantastic side is a broad hint as to how his imagination is large and contains multitudes, but we learn that they mean something rather different to him than they do to us: "I used to think I didn't have my own art because I had been working for an animation production company on their properties [and] not on my own," Amano admits at one point. It seems he spent the rest of his career either refuting that idea or finding ever-more-elegant way to synthesize the demands of his employers with his own creative impulses.
The second important thing about this book is how it devotes much time and space to Amano's own words about his creations and his career. Such details have surfaced before in other English-language anthologies of his work, but this adds further to the all-in-one-flavor of this particular compilation. In one section, he has a lengthy conversation with illustrator Akira Uno, where the two of them compare concepts. Some of this is going to be of more value to fans of modern Japanese artists than anyone else (quick, who's Tadanori Yokoo?), but the context it provides and the insight it allows is invaluable. Doubly so when the discussion turns to works that are all but impossible for Western audiences to appreciate directly, such as the projects he's done for the stage.
If Amano Illustrations has drawbacks, they're mostly nitpicks. The book is light on details about the animation projects where Amano served as designer — e.g., the concert film 1001 Nights, or his contribution to the Ten Nights of Dreams anthology film. But none of these omissions are deal-killers. If you're going to dive into Amano, this is the end of the pool to start with.
I had the pleasure of once seeing Amano in person. A few years back, he made an appearance at the New York Anime Festival (a/k/a New York Comic Con), in conjunction with Vampire Hunter D creator Hideyuki Kikuchi. Far from being some austere, otherworldly figure, Amano was genial and down-to-earth, happy to share points of view and elated to be in the company of fans of his work. At one point audience members were invited to compete for a T-shirt by declaring what it was we liked most about Amano's work, and I threw my own hat in the ring. Later, when it came down to three audience members playing rock-paper-scissors for the last shirt, I felt a tug on my sleeve. It was Mr. Amano's assistant, who told me: "Mr. Amano would like you to know that he liked your answer so much that he wanted you to have a shirt anyway." I couldn't stop grinning that whole weekend, but on reading this book I think now what I said then about his work has been validated all the more: "The one thing I like most about Amano's work is that it makes me feel like I'm dreaming even when I'm wide awake."